But it's something Toyota can easily fix.
A close friend of ours is about to get married, and the wedding coincided perfectly with us being close by in New York to drive the Jeep Wagoneer and Toyota GR 86. Batchelor weekend was upon us; all we had to do was get there. The drive from New York to Pennsylvania wouldn't be daunting, but we needed a vehicle with room for at least six of our friends. We borrowed a 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid in the fully-loaded Platinum trim for the weekend, and it proved to be the perfect vehicle (with only one major exception).
Over the weekend, we drove the Highlander Hybrid through three states, took it shopping, and piled six adults into it, all in an effort to test its usability as a road trip vehicle. The Highlander shined in most areas, though we have two recommendations on how it could be improved.
For the 2021 model year, all Highlander grades come with Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ as standard. TSS 2.5+ bundles pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, road sign assist, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and automatic high beams. The adaptive cruise came in handy during a pesky traffic jam, allowing us to keep our feet off the pedals during stop-and-go driving. If we had one criticism of these systems, Toyota's lane keep assist feels less capable than some competitors from Japan and South Korea.
Our Highlander Platinum had some additional safety features that we think customers will love. The 360-degree bird's eye view camera makes it nearly impossible to scrape a wheel while parking, and the rearview mirror camera gives drivers better rear visibility even with adults or boxes blocking the window.
An eight-inch infotainment system comes standard on the Highlander, but Platinum grade comes standard with a larger 12.3-inch touchscreen. Like most Toyota systems, the infotainment is intuitive to use, with a split-screen design giving front occupants quick access to their music or climate controls. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, meaning drivers always have intelligent voice commands to navigation, audio controls, and text messaging.
On the Platinum trim, music goes out through an 11-speaker JBL premium audio system with 1,200 watts. It's not the best system we've ever heard, but it sounds good (from the front seats) for a mainstream vehicle. We had fun blasting some mid-2000s punk rock on the JBL speakers, but our friends in the third row noted it can get extremely loud back there with the volume cranked up.
In addition to the main features we've already discussed, the Highlander Platinum is chuck full of minute details that make a road trip more enjoyable. The heated and ventilated front seats, for example, ensure you can stay driving for longer without getting uncomfortable. We wish the second-row captain's chairs had ventilated seats (like the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade), but our friends created a fun game turning on the other passenger's heated seat and seeing how long it would take them to notice.
No one in the car lacked for a place to charge their phone, with three USB ports in the front, a wireless charger in the center console, two more USB ports in the second row, and a power outlet in the third row. We particularly enjoyed the Highlander's front cubby with a clever passthrough to the USB ports.
Of all this car's features, we came away most impressed by the hybrid drivetrain. It pairs a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with two electric motors to produce 243 horsepower. This is less than the 295-hp produced by the 3.5-liter V6 gas model, but the benefit is 36 miles per gallon combined (35 mpg with all-wheel-drive). To put that fuel economy into perspective, the bachelor drives a four-cylinder 2011 RAV4 that only averages 24 mpg. In just a decade, Toyota managed to make its midsize vehicle more efficient than a compact. Only the Kia Sorento Hybrid matches the Highlander with 37 mpg combined, though it's a bit smaller.
On the drive from NY to PA, we averaged an impressive 37.5 mpg on the highway. Our fuel economy dipped on PA's hilly back roads, but we still managed to meet the EPA estimated fuel economy of 35 mpg combined. We finished the weekend with just over 400 miles on the trip computer, still with a quarter-tank of gas remaining. In nearly any other three-row vehicle, we would have needed a fuel stop.
The Highlander is not the largest vehicle in its segment, but the storage space was large enough for our uses. Before the weekend celebration officially began, the bachelor needed to pick up a few items from Costco, including a large folding table. With 48.4 cubic feet behind the second row, everything fit with ease. Later in the weekend, we put the Highlander to a tougher test by trying to fit boxes and suitcases behind six passengers. With 16 cubic feet available behind the third row, there was just enough space to squeeze medium-sized bags in the trunk.
We had no complaints on storage space, but our friends sitting in the third row noted it felt pretty cramped back there. The Highlander only offers 27.7 inches of legroom in the third row, and the high floor pushes occupant's knees into their chest. Fortunately, the second row offers a generous 41 inches of legroom, meaning riders in the middle seat can slide forward to make the third row more tolerable, but rivals like the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade offer more room.
We'd like to see Toyota offer a slightly larger Highlander model, similar to how Chevrolet offers the Tahoe and Suburban. Toyota has already trademarked the name Grand Highlander, which seems perfect for an extended model with a more spacious third row and larger trunk.
Toyota already offers the gas-powered Highlander with a sporty XSE grade, but we think this vehicle deserves a plug-in hybrid Prime version for maximum performance. The Highlander Hybrid doesn't feel sluggish with 243 hp, but the electronic continuously variable transmission makes the engine sound overstressed when passing on the highway or climbing up a steep hill.
Bumping the output up to 302 hp with the RAV4 Prime's drivetrain would do wonders for the Highlander's performance, and still give drivers decent all-electric range. In a dream scenarios, we'd love to see Toyota pair its V6 engine to a PHEV system, creating even smoother acceleration.
Even without a larger third row or a Prime version, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid stands out as an amazing option in the three-row SUV segment. The Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade are more well-rounded, but those who prioritize fuel economy will love the Highlander.